For many years, the computers of staff at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) bore a desktop background stating that their work, managing and disbursing the country’s overseas aid, is “a moral obligation in the national interest”.
“Enlightened self-interest” is the preferred term amongst British politicians seeking to justify to their constituents the country’s policy of spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid.
But there is a slipperiness to “enlightened self-interest”. Ostensibly, it is straightforward: you make your neighbourhood a better place, and the upshot is that you get to live in a nicer neighbourhood.
The slipperiness comes in when you have to ask how to do this: how do your neighbours know that you’re doing something for the collective good, rather than expecting a quid pro quo down the line that they don’t want?
Once you factor in that your own past actions may be responsible for the plight of your neighbours, then you really do have an obligation to make them trust your motives.
The development community has spent decades attempting to balance this question, and 23 years on from DFID’s creation by former prime minister Tony Blair, the department today stands alone as the last major aid agency in the West to operate independently of a foreign ministry.
The UK’s development minister sits in the Cabinet and creates aid policy. DFID civil servants often meet with representatives from so-called beneficiary countries independently, too, without instruction from British ambassadors, trade officials and foreign ministers.
The result, over two decades, has been that DFID remains the last bastion of a fading principle: aid is there for the benefit of the recipient, and the national interest flows from that, rather than directs it. That creates mutual trust, and mutual trust is the bedrock of a good neighbourhood.
“We are [giving aid] because it is both the right thing to do and firmly in Britain’s national interest,” read several of DFID’s policy documents.
Last week, Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, and his Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, announced that DFID would soon be merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Britain’s foreign ministry, to create a “super-department”.
The decision was reportedly made without the knowledge of the Cabinet, the National Security Council or DFID's most senior official. DFID's own staff discovered the news via Twitter on the morning it was announced.
It was, Mr Johnson claimed to MPs, the “progressive thing” to do. And of course, Mr Raab’s explanation invoked claims of “enlightened self-interest”.
The experiment to keep development and foreign policies separate began in the 1990s but has been gradually abandoned over the last decade. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Norway and Denmark – all famous cheerleaders for development aid – have all now merged their aid agencies into their foreign ministries.
The question on many taxpayers’ lips is whether any of this helps make development aid more worthwhile. There is no doubt that the development sector has had its share of challenges. The big picture is not always a pretty one.
The list of the poorest countries has remained more or less the same for the last 30 years, and the few who have truly transformed their economies have done so more through their own political evolution than by way of “technical assistance”, “capacity-building” workshops or relief packages from donor countries.
Aid has long suffered from an accountability problem, and the spectacle of overpaid Western consultants, NGO workers and multilaterals contracted to deliver many of the programmes carries worrying echoes of past colonial practices. Occasional allegations of misconduct do not help either.
It is also easy to see, instinctively, the presence of private “development contractors” who participate in the “aid industry” as absurd. How can something as awe-inspiring and fundamental as the political and economic aspirations of nations be “contracted out” to profit-making, foreign companies?
These companies, as it happens, make up only a small part of the landscape, and agencies like DFID tend to spread the risk of project implementation by disbursing funds through different channels – mainly multilaterals, then NGOs, then contractors. But the industrialisation of aid, nonetheless, is not a good look.
Both academics and civil servants also debate fiercely the effectiveness of aid “projects”. It is genuinely an open question whether poor countries would not have an easier time developing in the long run if they were simply handed cash by rich ones, or if they were allowed to erect trade barriers between themselves and the developed world.
Unfortunately, the question of how aid could perform better was not the subject of last week’s debates in the British Parliament. Instead, Mr Johnson and Mr Raab were less interested in making aid work better, and more interested in making the interests it works towards narrower.
Making his views clear to MPs, Mr Johnson said, “We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, although the latter is vital for European security, and we give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the western Balkans, which are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”
This sends a message to the countries that Britain helps that the transaction will be limited in scope and ruthless in character.
Even if Mr Johnson’s desire was to ensure that aid was more effective in delivering his interpretation of the national interest, the evidence proves his chosen strategy incorrect. Merging an aid department into the foreign policymaking engine only harms performance. Repeated studies of mergers between departments elsewhere demonstrate this.
A study of the 2013 merger of AusAid with the Australian foreign ministry concluded that it "resulted in a loss of strategic vision for the role and use of aid, worse-performing programmes, less transparency, weaker evaluation capacity and a devaluing of development skills and knowledge within the broader department".
The author of a study on the merger of Canada's aid agency with its foreign ministry has said that "it is not clear that there have been any advantages…I have yet to meet anybody who thinks it has worked out well".
And this is because, when it comes to the effectiveness of aid programmes, philosophy matters. Aid practitioners need to know why they are putting together a two or five or ten-year project, and the countries they are working with need to know that it is being directed for their benefit. The self-interest only works when it is truly enlightened, and it is only enlightened when the trust remains intact.
There is a mercurial quality to foreign policy. Governments rise and fall, sometimes with surprising speed, and so their relations with other states change in a matter of months or even days. But ending poverty, curing malaria, building trust between local communities – all the work of international development – are part of a long and arduous march. They require long-term thinking, a consistent approach and most importantly, good faith between the donor and the recipient.
We will see over the coming years what this new “super-department” looks like - but all the best guesses are that it will do precisely what Mr Johnson wants: spend more money on Britain’s short-term interests. Twenty years of trust built between a major aid agency and the poorest countries in the world will be undermined as a result.
Who knows what the new laptop screens will say?
Sulaiman Hakemy is deputy comment editor at The National